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Saturday, March 13, 2010

Catholicism and Me (Part One)

My mother was one of nine children: eight girls, one boy, all devout Catholics. These children had lots of children too, though many could not afford the large families they had anyway. I have something like 41 first cousins (but none at all on Dad’s side; he was nominally a Protestant, but cared little about religion).

As a boy I started out being quite religious: going to mass each day while in the first and second grade and weekly on Sundays thereafter, and attending Catholic schools when available as we moved through an Air Force family’s nomadic life. [Kindergarten in the Mohave Desert in CA; first and second grade in St. Louis; third and fourth in Omaha; fifth in Jasper IN while Dad was in training for the move to Japan; six, seventh and first half of the eighth on Yokota Air Force Base in Japan; last half of the eighth and first three years of high school in a suburb of Nashville, and senior year in Yorktown VA—after which I joined the Navy to see the world, as described in last February’s “My Year in Bermuda” post].

In the Catholic schools we were taught by nuns and sometimes priests, the vast majority of whom were splendid people. The fourth grade Omaha nun who took me aside in the fourth grade and told me that I was capable of big things was one of the most extraordinary human beings I’ve ever met, and she was a major effect on my life. One exception to the rule in the first sentence above was the Mother Superior under whose tutelage I fell during the last half of the eighth grade. This woman was a truly terrifying figure, tall and intimidating, cruel to the children (she would swat their hands with rulers when they misbehaved, and even hit her students with the oversized rosary that hung around her waist). She made us promise not to talk in the lunch line (I don’t know why), and, being eighth-graders, we of course would chatter away to each other, at which point she would come swooping down on us like a giant bat, rosary swinging, yelling, “Hypocrites! Hypocrites!” It wasn’t until a couple of years later I figured out that “hypocrite” did not mean “lunch line talker.”

During high school, both the first three years in Nashville and the fourth in VA, there was no Catholic school nearby, so my sister Mary Beth and I went to public schools, but this meant that we had to go to Catechism Class one evening every week (Wednesdays, I seem to remember). For some reason, perhaps chance, the classes I attended in both places were taught my men. Catholic priests are of two types: sharp and intellectual or dumb as sticks. The Nashville priest, alas, was of the latter variety. He was a bad teacher, uninterested in his students or the subject matter, and consequently boring and hard to follow. Since I was annoyed at this forced instruction, I would amuse myself by asking detailed questions about the various doctrines he was supposedly explaining. Poor baby, he had no stomach for such explanations, particularly as to some of the more peculiar things Catholic are taught to believe (no birth control, for example, or a permanent residence in “limbo” for the unbaptized through the milennia). As a law professor I was always pretty good at Socratic dialogues [see the Jan. 31 post “The Socratic Dialogue in Law School”], and even as a teenager I wasn’t bad at mining for truth through questions and answers. Invariably this would end up badly for him, and he would retreat into a pet phrase: “It’s one of the mysteries of the Catholic Religion.” When, over the course of months, he said this one too many times, sarcastic brat that I was I commented that this religion seemed to have “an awful lot of mysteries.” That night my parents received a phone call from him asking that I not return since I was “disruptive” to the class. That pleased me to no end, and for most of the Nashville years I was happily spared further religious instruction.

Then in 1960 Dad was transferred to Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, and my mother received a notice from the base’s Catholic Chaplin’s Office that Mary Beth and I would have to again attend catechism classes, starting at once. [Frankly, as a lawyer, I’m disturbed by the government spending large amounts of money on some favored religions—but not all—to create churches and chapels right on the military bases and put ministers on the federal payroll—sounds like a violation of church and state to me, but it’s not my field of law, so let it pass]. The first night Beth and I went, the class was held in the small Blessed Sacrament part of the chapel (where the consecrated hosts are kept in a tabernacle in full view of the pupils, who sat in the pews). When we were all seated (about twenty of us, all of high school age), the priest entered. He was a tall man, wearing a long black cassock, and he was filled with energy, very interested in what he was teaching, which this night, of all things, was the Catholic take on evolution! I was at attention immediately since I’d been doing a lot of reading on the subject in my determined quest to understand how the world really worked. The priest explained that Catholic doctrine allowed of two views: the Adam and Eve version or Darwinian evolution (with God endowing the human race with a divine soul at some point during development). In a booming voice he explained that he himself thought that Adam and Eve was the likeliest explanation, since it was described in detail in the Bible. I thought that story merely an ancient fabrication to explain something those ancients didn’t understand, so I leaped right into the conversation, and the Socratic dialogue began. It was just the two of us for about ten minutes, until I said something like “But what about the fossils---where did they come from?” His reply was that God had simply created the fossils when he created the earth. “Why would God—of all entities—be in a hurry?” I protested, astounded. At this, the priest turned his back on us, knelt down before the altar on which the tabernacle rested, and, arms spread wide in supplication, intoned, “Lord, forgive these children! They know not what they do!.” I rose to my feet, saying to Mary Beth, “Up! We’re going.” We made a fast exit.

When I told our parents about this, Mom was horrified and Dad secretly amused. My mother, very worried and embarrassed by me, kept expecting to be contacted by the Catholic authorities and perhaps—what?—excommunicated?, but no notice ever came about this event, nor any further demands that I return for more instruction, which was certainly fine with me. Interestingly, in both cases Mary Beth was also mysteriously excused from these weekly lessons. Perhaps she was judged tainted by association with her apostate brother.

I had two later contacts with the Catholic Church (once in college and once in law school), both involving Doug going to confession. I’ll write about them in a future post, which, trust me, won’t be boring however heretical you may find them to be.
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Related Posts:
“Superstitions,” March 21, 2010
 “Catholicism and Me (Part Two),” April 18, 2010
“How To Become an Atheist,” May 16, 2010
“Imaginary Friend,” June 22, 2010
 “I Don’t Do Science,” July 2, 2010
“Explosion at Ohio Stadium,” October 9, 2010 (Chapter 1 of my novel)
“When Atheists Die,” October 17, 2010
"Escape From Ohio Stadium," November 2, 2010 (Chapter 2)
"Open Mouth, Insert Foot," November 21, 2010 (Chapter 3)
"Rock Around the Sun," December 31, 2010
"Muslim Atheist," March 16, 2011
"An Atheist Interviews God," May 20, 2011
"A Mormon Loses His Faith," June 13, 2011
"Is Evolution True?" July 13, 2011
"Atheists, Christmas, and Public Prayers," December 9, 2011
" Urban Meyer and the Christian Buckeye Football Team," February 19, 2012
"Intelligent Design, Unintelligent Designer?", May 12, 2012
"My Atheist Thriller: Another Book Reading," May 17, 2012
"'The God Particle' and the Vanishing Role of God," July 5, 2012
“Update: Urban Meyer and the NON-Christian Buckeye Football Team,” August 24, 2012

“Atheists Visit the Creation Museum,” October 4, 2012
“Mitt Romney: A Mormon President?” October 17, 2012
“The End of the World: Mayans, Jesus, and Others,” December 17, 2012
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013

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